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Masters of the Universe

Masters of the Universe

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Today’s feature is the much-maligned film adaptation of the Mattel franchise He-Man: Cannon Group’s Masters of the Universe.

Masters of the Universe was written by David Odell, who also penned such films as Supergirl, The Dark Crystal, and numerous episodes of The Muppet Show.

The director on Masters of the Universe was Gary Goddard, which is to date his only feature film directorial credit. However, he has produced and written a number of shorts and 3D/4D shows for theme parks over the years, if that counts for anything.

The cinematographer for Masters of the Universe was Hanania Baer, who has shot such movies as American Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo, The Brotherhood of Justice, and Ernest Scared Stupid.

The editor on the film was Anne V. Coates, who has also cut movies such as Fifty Shades of Grey, Congo, Lawrence of Arabia, Striptease, Erin Brockovich, and The Golden Compass over her career.

The two primary producers of Masters of the Universe were Menahem Golan and Yoram Globus, the infamous duo behind the flurry of Cannon Group b-movies that dominated the 1980s (Enter the Ninja, Revenge of the Ninja, Ninja III: The Domination, American Ninja). The other producers included Elliot Schick (Total Recall), Edward Pressman (The Island of Dr. Moreau, Judge Dredd, Street Fighter), and Evzen Kolar (Surf Ninjas).

The makeup effects team for Masters of the Universe included Robin Beauchesne (Killer Workout, Iron Man 2, First Daughter, National Treasure), James Kagel (Stargate, Child’s Play, Big Trouble In Little China), Todd McIntosh (April Fool’s Day), Gerald Quist (Drive, Jonah Hex, Breakfast of Champions, Re-Animator), June Westmore (Sphere), and Michael Westmore (Raging Bull, Capricorn One).

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The Masters of the Universe special effects team was composed of Larry Roberts (Volcano, 3 Ninjas Kick Back), Karl G. Miller (Cat People, The Blues Brothers, Battlestar Galactica), Daniel Hutten (Die Hard, Solarbabies), R.J. Hohman (The Perfect Storm, Cyborg, Popeye, The Two Jakes), and Arthur Brewer (The Hitcher, Swamp Thing, Smokey and The Bandit).

The massive team of visual effects artists on Masters of the Universe included common elements with such productions as Ghostbusters, Volcano, Coneheads, Leonard Part 6, Fright Night, Donnie Darko, Battle Beyond The Stars, Mystery Men, Lawnmower Man 2, Ghost, and Raiders of the Lost Ark.

The music for Masters of the Universe was composed by Bill Conti, who is best known for his work on the Rocky movies, The Karate Kid, and The Right Stuff.

The cast of Masters of the Universe included Dolph Lundgren (Rocky IV, Dark Angel, The Punisher, Red Scorpion), Frank Langella (The Twelve Chairs, Junior, Cutthroat Island, Small Soldiers, The Ninth Gate), Meg Foster (They Live, Leviathan, Blind Fury, The Lords of Salem), Billy Barty (Willow, Legend), Courteney Cox (Friends, Scream, Cougar Town), Chelsea Field (Death Spa, The Last Boy Scout, Flipper), and James Tolkan (Back To The Future).

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The plot of Masters of the Universe follows a group of resistance fighters from a faraway planet who are transported to Earth through the use of a mysterious scientific device. However, their enemies soon follow, in an effort to exterminate them and solidify their sinister rule. He-Man and his allies have to work with a handful of humans from Earth to defeat the evil Skeletor to save both Earth and the faraway planet of Eternia from the long reach of darkness.

In an interview, director Gary Goddard spoke about the stylistic influence of the works of Jack Kirby on Masters of the Universe, saying:

“the storyline was greatly inspired by the classic Fantastic Four/Doctor Doom epics, The New Gods and a bit of Thor thrown in here and there. I intended the film to be a “motion picture comic book,” though it was a tough proposition to sell to the studio at the time. ‘Comics are just for kids,’ they thought. They would not allow me to hire Jack Kirby who I desperately wanted to be the conceptual artist for the picture”

The costuming for the character of Evil-Lyn caused actor Meg Foster significant bruising in particularly inconvenient locations, and reportedly weighed well over 40 pounds in total. Interestingly, the eerie appearance of her eyes in the movie was completely natural, and required no enhancements or contact lenses.

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Frank Langella reportedly loved playing the character of Skeletor, and even wrote some of the more memorable lines in the movie himself. He initially took the role because of how much his son loved the franchise, a situation that echoes the similar casting of Raul Julia in the Street Fighter adaptation some years later.

Interestingly, Masters of the Universe is an adaptation specifically from the original line of toys, and not the immensely popular cartoon, which establishes very different backstories for the characters and the plot. This confused many fans of the franchise when the movie initially released, and almost certainly contributed to the negative reception it received.

The failure of Masters of the Universe, coupled with the disappointment of Superman IV, supposedly foiled plans by the Cannon Group to invest in a high budget film adaptation of Spider-Man in the late 1980s, which was to be funded by the profits of those two films.

A sequel to Masters of the Universe was cast and written, but was ultimately scrapped just as the Cannon Group was going under. Very little is known about the abandoned production, other than that it would have been directed by Albert Pyun (Captain America).

A reboot of Masters of the Universe is currently in the works (and has been for a few years), with the latest information that Thor: The Dark World screenwriter Christopher Yost has been attached to keep it moving along. No directors are currently attached to the project, and no clear timeline has been set for shooting or release.

Anthony De Longis, one of the actors in the film, was initially hired as a sword expert, and provided all of the fight choreography for the film. He even filled in as Skeletor in the fight sequences, and trained Dolph Lundgren on how to use a sword.

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Masters of the Universe proved to be a financial failure, bringing in only 17 million at the box office on a budget of 22 million. Likewise, the reviews of the movie were brutal, clocking in at 17% on Rotten Tomatoes from critics and 41% from audiences, along with an IMDb rating of 5.3.

One of my biggest issues with the film’s plot is the fact that no bystanders are ever harmed, or even witness the events that take place on Earth. How do no people see an alien army marching through suburban streets, or small aircraft flying over a mid-sized town? At one point, the police finally do show up, but only after they are drug to the scene by another police officer. It is assumed that at no point over the duration of the plot did anyone report suspicious activity, let along openly panic at witnessing an alien invasion.

The story of Masters of the Universe seems to assume previous knowledge of the characters, their relationships, and the basic premise of the story, which is especially confusing given that the adaptation is taken directly from a series of action figures, which are not historically known for establishing plot. The beginning of the movie could even be seen as a follow-up from a previous film given how little backstory is provided.

One unnecessary addition to the cast of Masters of the Universe that particularly got on my nerves was the annoying troll character, Gwildor. While he is crucial to the plot during a handful of moments, his primary purpose is to provide comic relief, which never fails to fall flat. Also, the makeup on the dwarf-like creature is really odd and unsettling, as if he were left out in the sun for too long.

Dolph Lundgren is surprisingly solid enough in this movie, given that he still didn’t have a solid hold on the English language at this point. That said, this certainly wasn’t a dialogue-heavy role for him, which was certainly for the best.

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The most notable aspect of Masters of the Universe is that it feels like a patchwork of better known movies from the time, like Star Wars and Back to The Future. There is not much original to it when all is said and done, and the screenplay is about as basic and no-frills as it could possibly be.

overall, I can certainly see why this movie didn’t resonate with existing He-Man fans. That said, there is a fair amount of fun to be had with this admirably mindless entry into the filmography of the 1980s. Frank Langella absolutely hams it up as Skeletor, and the creature work is all very over the top. There are more lasers and goofy visual effects than you could possibly dream of, and the plot itself centers around a synthesizer with the ability to open dimensional portals.  What more could you possibly ask for?

The value of this movie definitely comes from a combined sense of nostalgia and how poorly the film has aged on the whole. It isn’t an elite good-bad movie for sure, but I think that it is more than worth checking out at least once for the novelty of it.

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Revenge of the Ninja

Revenge of the Ninja

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The next feature up is the second installment in the Cannon ninja trilogy: “Revenge of the Ninja.”

“Revenge of the Ninja” was written by James R. Silke, who, along with director Sam Firstenberg, would return for the final installment in the Cannon ninja trilogy: the bizarre supernatural “Ninja III: The Domination.”

Initially, Menahem Golan intended to direct “Revenge of the Ninja” just as he did with “Enter the Ninja,” but instead gave the project to Firstenberg, who would go on direct the first two “American Ninja” movies and the infamous “Breakin’ 2: Electric Boogaloo” for Cannon.

The effects on “Revenge of the Ninja,” which are a step up in quality from the previous film “Enter the Ninja,” were provided by Joe Quinlivan, who would go on to work on larger budget movies like “Face/Off,” “Tombstone,” and “Robocop 2.” He also interestingly provided effects for a movie I have previously covered, the bizarre incest drama “House of Yes.” He also returned for “Ninja III: The Domination” to close out the Cannon ninja trilogy.

revengeninja1The cinematography was provided once again by David Gurfinkel, one of the few returning elements in “Revenge of the Ninja” carried over from “Enter the Ninja.” Gurfinkel managed to rack up nearly 90 film credits over his career, spanning from the 1960s into the 2010s, primarily on low-budget B-movies.

The music was once again provided by the “Enter the Ninja” duo of W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder, with the notable addition of one Robert J. Walsh. Walsh went on to provide music for countless cartoon shows in the late 80s (“Jem,” “GI Joe,” “My Little Pony,” “Muppet Babies”), as well as some off-the-wall documentaries (“UFO: The Greatest Story Ever Denied”) and b-movies (“Leprechaun,” “Nightbeast,” “Zombie Nation”).

“Enter the Ninja” was one of the first films to come out of Cannon after its acquisition by the Israeli cousins Menahem Goram and Yoram Globus, who led the company into a sort of renaissance of b-pictures and knock-offs from 1980 to 1994. The names “Goram and Globus” are now instantly synonymous with their low-budget 1980s movies, many of which have become treasured cult classics (including the ninja trilogy, which began with “Enter the Ninja”).

“Revenge of the Ninja,” the second in the Cannon ninja trilogy, came two years following the success of “Enter the Ninja.” Despite having no story or character overlap, “Revenge of the Ninja” is widely regarded as a sequel in a spiritual sense, capturing the same ambiance and style of “Enter the Ninja,” and featuring a handful of returning elements in the cast and crew.

The cast of “Revenge of the Ninja” features one key returning member of the “Enter the Ninja” cast: Sho Kosugi. Whereas he played the rival ninja in “Enter,” “Revenge” places him in the sympathetic lead role, which he really thrives in. He’s also a slightly more believable ninja that Franco Nero, which is quite the understatement. Kane Kosugi and Shane Kosugi, Sho’s actual children, play his character’s young boys in the movie. Not to get too far into spoiler territory, but Kane gets a significantly greater amount of screen-time than his brother.

revengeninja4The story of “Revenge of the Ninja,” predictably enough, centers around a ninja who is out for revenge. The opening of the film shows Sho Kosugi’s family being murdered by a group of presumably rival ninjas, which leads him to flee to the United States with his mother and sole surviving child for the sake of their safety. A friend gives him an art gallery stateside for him to make a living, and Sho practices pacifism for years as his child begins to grow up. It is ultimately revealed that the gallery is not what it appears to be, and that the friend is not to be trusted. After some violent shenanigans, the titular ninja-related revenge kicks into high gear for an amazing shuriken-packed conclusion.

The initial theatrical and home video release of “Revenge of the Ninja” featured a number of cuts to tone down the explicit violence. However, the versions that are available now are uncut, with some of the more gore-y, blood-splattering sequences restored.

revengeninja3“Revenge of the Ninja” was filmed almost entirely in Salt Lake City, a very significant departure from the tropical, Philippines setting of the previous film. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t done for any artistic decision on the part of Golan and Globus: rather, they chose Salt Lake City specifically because the Utah Film Commission reportedly promised no permits, location fees or union deals for the production.

Perhaps the most memorable sequence of the film is the brutal prologue, in which Sho Kosugi’s family is slaughtered in their home. Amazingly, this sequence was apparently not initially in the script: instead, it was added in after Menahem Globus found the story to be lacking in depth after shooting began.

The fans of “Revenge of the Ninja” vary from 1980s nostalgics to die hard martial arts movie fans to those who enjoy “good-bad” flicks. It is probably the best reviewed of the Cannon ninja trilogy, which really isn’t saying much: it hold a 6.0 on IMDb and a 58% audience rating on Rotten Tomatoes. That said, it is still undoubtedly a cult classic with plenty of die hard fans.

“Revenge of the Ninja” has pretty much everything you would expect from a ninja movie: awful acting across the board, ridiculous physics (catching an arrow with your teeth?), and some excellent ninja fighting action. The finale once again features a one-on-one battle to the death, but this time it occurs on city rooftops. It isn’t quite as memorable as the cockfighting ring in “Enter the Ninja,” but there is a good deal of it that occurs on a tennis court, which is pretty awesome.

One of the criticisms of “Enter the Ninja” that I have seen a lot is about the impracticality of Nero’s all-white ninja suit. In “Revenge of the Ninja,” both the good and bad ninjas wear black, which is honestly a bit confusing. It might make more sense, but it is a little too easy to lose track of who is who. I’m not going to say that a white suit is the way to go, but there are certainly ways to distinguish ninja uniforms from each other.

One of the most infamous events in “Revenge of the Ninja” occurs in the prologue, in which Sho Kosugi catches three arrows out of mid-air (the last with his teeth). This sequence almost certainly influenced a “MythBusters” episode in which the gang tested whether it was realistically possible to catch an arrow mid-flight.

One issue I had with this film is that the passage of time between the prologue and the main story seems off. It is shown that Sho’s gallery has not yet opened as the story begins to unfold, while his child is shown to be in elementary school. However, in the prologue, the surviving child is still a baby. It seemed heavily implied that Sho and his surviving family moved immediately after the events of the prologue, which leaves a good amount of time (enough for a baby to become a young child) missing. I might have just missed a detail on my initial watch, but it certainly stuck out to me. Given the prologue was added in later, it seems entirely possible to me that this was just a continuity oversight.

One thing that “Revenge of the Ninja” lacks are colorful antagonists. The rival in “Revenge” isn’t particularly memorable, and doesn’t have understandable goals, outside of wanting to be wealthy and powerful. He is also a very straight villain, and doesn’t do a whole lot of hamming it up, which is what I always want from this sort of movie.

Overall, this is a thoroughly enjoyable ninja movie, and is very much deserving of the cult status it has accrued. Sho Kosugi is awesome to watch, and the film is worth checking out on his merits alone for ninja movie fans. Bad movie lovers will love the awful acting, the silly plot, and the special effects, not to mention the genuinely entertaining fight scenes. As for general audiences, this is probably as good as any ninja movie for breaking someone into the genre, and it manages to keep up a steady pace better than most of its peer flicks.

Enter The Ninja

Enter The Ninja

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Today’s feature is a true cult classic, and the first installment in the infamous Cannon Group ninja trilogy: “Enter The Ninja.”

The story of “Enter the Ninja” was originated by Mike Stone, who was initially intended to play the lead in the movie. Ultimately, he acted as the film’s stunt coordinator and Franco Nero’s double after it was discovered that he wasn’t particularly good at acting. The screenplay credit is given to a man named Dick Desmond, who notably has no other writing credits.

“Enter the Ninja” was directed by one of the heads of Cannon Films, Menahem Golan. Initially, he was only slated to produce the flick, but ended up firing the original director, Emmett Alston, after only a handful of days of shooting.

entertheninja6The music on “Enter the Ninja” was provided by the team of W. Michael Lewis and Laurin Rinder, who previously worked together on the holiday-themed horror movie “New Year’s Evil.” Both returned to work together again on “Revenge of the Ninja,” the second in the Cannon ninja trilogy.

The special effects for “Enter the Ninja” were provided by Ben Otico, who worked as an art director and special effects technician on a number of exploitation films throughout the 1970s and 1980s, including “Women in Cages,” “Black Mamba,” and “She Devils in Chains.”

David Gurfinkel served as director of photography for the film, a fellow who would go on to work on such treasures as Sylvester Stallone’s “Over The Top,” “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles III,” “America 3000,” and “American Samurai.” His previous credit to “Enter the Ninja” was another notorious Cannon film also helmed by Menahem Golan, the bizarre musical “The Apple.” He also returned for the second film in the ninja trilogy, 1983’s “Revenge of the Ninja.”

“Enter the Ninja” was one of the first films to come out of Cannon after its acquisition by the Israeli cousins Menahem Goram and Yoram Globus, who led the company into a sort of renaissance of b-pictures and knock-offs from 1980 to 1994. The names “Goram and Globus” are now instantly synonymous with their low-budget 1980s movies, many of which have become treasured cult classics (including the ninja trilogy, which began with “Enter the Ninja”).

Franco Nero, who is best remembered as the original Django, was brought in at the last minute to star as the film’s lead. Because of his character’s American background, all of his dialogue was ultimately dubbed over. Sho Kosugi stars as Nero’s rival (the black ninja) in his first major film role, and is one of the only elements to remain throughout the Cannon ninja trilogy. Sho was also notably a real martial artist, and not only performed his own stunts, but also filled in as an extra ninja during the movie’s opening sequence. The main bad guy of the film is played by Christopher George (“Fantasy Island”), who unfortunately died just a couple of years later in his early 50s. Susan George (“Straw Dogs”) plays Nero’s love interest and inevitable kidnapping victim in the movie. The accessory cast includes Zachi Noy, Constantine Gregory, and Michael Dudikoff in a minor background role, who would later star in a film greatly influence by “Enter The Ninja”: “American Ninja.”

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The story of “Enter the Ninja” follows an American war veteran who travels to Japan to master ninjitsu. After completing his training, he decides to visit a companion from his military days in the Philippines, which winds up entangling him in a bloody local conflict with a criminal land developer.

“Enter the Ninja” was filmed almost entirely on location in the Philippines, which pitted the cast and crew against oppressive natural elements: namely the weather and a variety of exotic animals. Further, the combination of nationalities in the cast and crew meant that at least three languages were regularly used on set, creating a peculiar communication situation.

“Enter the Ninja” received its title, predictably, because of the massive popularity of the 1973 Bruce Lee move “Enter the Dragon,” which was a significant financial success.

The memorable final ninja battle of “Enter the Ninja” was filmed in an actual cock-fighting arena located in the Philippines, which provides a spectacular and symbolic backdrop for an epic one-on-one battle to the death.

The nine levels of power featured in “Enter the Ninja” are a form of kuji, which are mantras used as a sort of meditation practice. The specific ones featured in the film were written about by the American ninjutsu master Stephen K. Hayes in his book “Warrior Ways of Enlightenment.”

“Enter the Ninja” is undoubtedly a cult classic among martial arts movies, and beloved by many. That said, it is also very much a low quality movie that didn’t exactly pop up on critics’ radars. It currently holds a somewhat harsh 4.9 rating on IMDb, which doesn’t accurately represent how treasured the film. Still, it is hard to argue that the film is “good” in any conventional sense of the term.

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I wasn’t able to dig up any financial details on “Enter the Ninja,” but presumably it made a significant amount of money on a rather low budget, given its popularity and the eventual sequels.

“Enter the Ninja” is certainly deserving of a lot of criticism. Why does Nero wear an entirely white ninja outfit, when the entire point of the art is stealth? It was certainly a decision made for the case of style over common  sense, but it is no less preposterous for it. The film is also rife with continuity errors, awful acting, and the (of course) distracting dubbing over Franco Nero’s lines. Even the casting of Franco Nero to begin with was a baffling decision made more for convenience than sensibility: he was brought in only because he was in the area, and Golan needed an actor to fill in the lead role after Stone proved to be a truly awful actor. Speaking of which, how bad must Stone have been that having an entirely dubbed-over Franco Nero was a better option?

Personally, there were a lot of things that I liked about this movie. I particularly love the primary villain death via ninja star, which ends in a sort of confused shrug that has become infamous. The final Sho/Nero fight scene in the cockfighting ring is also pretty fantastic and entertaining to watch. Even the secondary villains are fun and unique: the hook-handed enforcer is immensely entertaining, as is the excessively polite and proper Mr. Parker. For all of the issues with the film, there are a whole lot of memorable moments and characters that have stuck with me.

entertheninja4Overall, I think this movie is a whole lot of fun, though it may very well be the least entertaining of the Cannon ninja trilogy. I think that statement is more of a credit to the sequels than it is a discredit to “Enter the Ninja,” but I suppose that is very much up to interpretation. In any case, this is definitely worth watching for martial arts movie fans or bad movie aficionados. If multi-colored ninja battles and awful acting are up your alley, this is a flick worth checking out.